This chapter was a much needed confidence boost for me–after reading it, I realized that I already had a fairly good handle on abstracts. It included so much of what I’ve taught my students when helping them with their literature searches. Skim reading abstracts is a vital skill when you’re trying to get a good understanding of “what’s been done” on and around your topic. You need to make sense of the hundreds (or thousands) of search results, and you don’t have time to (or need to) read everything. My ESL students, in particular, sometimes felt overwhelmed by the prospect of having to read countless academic books and journal articles, only to find that very few would turn out to be relevant for their project in the end. Many of my students thought that if you cited something, it meant you had read the whole thing–that is a big misconception about academia. We skim and cite. We use indexes and keyword searches to zoom in on just the relevant sentences or paragraphs or pages. We rarely read anything from cover to cover. Those overflowing bookcases in professors’ offices don’t mean what you think they mean–most of their books probably have some margin notes or underlining here and there, and haven’t been read cover to cover. It’s not because academics are lazy–we love reading! It’s because you don’t have to read something cover to cover for it to be useful in your own work.
That’s where abstracts come in. They are a little summary that highlights the argument and key findings, so you know whether it’s worthwhile for you to read further. They can give you a good enough idea of the content to decide whether it’s useful. Sometimes it’s useful in a negative sense, because it helps you to say “previous studies have focused on x, but overlooked y…and this is significant because…”. You can rely on an abstract and a quick skim read to cite examples of the thing you’re not doing, if you’re using that as part of your rationale/justification for the study. It shows the reader that you’re aware of other approaches and suggests that you have a good understanding of where your topic/approach sits in the broader field.
I loved the “talking your way to clarity” task–it made me realize how much talking about my work with friends/family has helped me, and how much talking with my students about their work helped them! It’s a bit like talk therapy in psychology–communicating your thoughts to somebody else helps you understand them better yourself.
Writing the abstract helps clarify your article’s focus and argument. Belcher recommends you start with the abstract and, since this article stems from a conference paper abstract I wrote back in 2018, I actually did start with the abstract in this case. The project has grown and changed over the past 2 years, but I was able to build on some of the basic ideas from that original abstract to write this one.
I also loved the task of reading abstracts to get an idea of what they should contain, what to leave out, and to consider the strengths and weaknesses of real life, published abstracts. For someone who doesn’t regularly skim the current issues of various journals in the field, it was also just a nice way to get a quick impression of what’s going on in research at the moment!
My abstract before doing the task of reading recent abstracts in journals:
In the aftermath of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, Congressional Twitter became a site of partisan debate on gun policy. Survivors appeared on the news and challenged policy makers to take action, asserting that adults had failed in their duty to protect them, the children of America. Despite broad popular support for gun control measures such as universal background checks, Congressional inaction persisted after each mass shooting. As survivors quickly became activists and organized the March for Our Lives, Parkland appeared to be a critical discourse moment for the gun debate in America. But how did Congress respond to this school shooting and the movement that followed?
This study conducted a critical discourse analysis of Congressional Twitter posts to identify dominant themes and frames, to categorize performances of empathy and calls to action, and to assess the state of the gun control vs. gun rights debate in the wake of Parkland. It found that members of Congress used the phrase “thoughts and prayers” in starkly partisan ways. While some Republicans expressed sympathy with “thoughts and prayers” on the platform, others avoided using the exact phrase. Many called the shooting “heart-breaking,” “tragic,” or said they were “praying for Parkland” instead. Democrats used the phrase “thoughts and prayers” in their criticism of inaction, describing “thoughts and prayers” as an insufficient response and calling for “real action” to prevent future shootings. In this paper, I argue that there was a distinct backlash against public figures using the phrase “thoughts and prayers” as a performative act of caring after Parkland. The study demonstrates that there was a discursive turn towards calls for action from both parties in the turn away from “thoughts and prayers”. Activists’ demands for action elicited significant Congressional Twitter responses from members of both parties, with partisan differences in terms of the actions endorsed. Overall, the study identifies Parkland as a critical moment for Congressional discourse on gun policy. It brought about a new way of responding to shootings, shifting from “thoughts and prayers” to calls for action.
I read 10 abstracts from current issues in 3 quite different journals in my field, from 3 different publishers. I quickly saw that each journal has a preferred style, and some abstracts were definitely stronger than others (also realized that I’m a harsh critic–I read 7 before really liking one!). They were all quite brief, around 200 words, and just one paragraph long. My draft abstract was 342, so one clear outcome of the task was that I knew it needed some trimming down. It also showed some interesting trends about word choice–the strongest ones used “show”, “demonstrate”, “highlight” instead of “examine” or “explore”, and nearly all of them used “argue” or “argument”. My earlier drafts included “examine”/”explore”, and I removed them during the week 2 chapter because they felt too descriptive. I tried to follow the rest of the checklist im my revisions and cuts, too.
Abstract draft after reading 10 abstracts:
In the aftermath of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, Congressional Twitter became a site of partisan debate on gun policy. As survivors quickly became activists and challenged persistent Congressional inaction, Parkland appeared to be a critical discourse moment for the gun debate in America. But how did Congress respond to this school shooting and the movement that followed? This study used critical discourse analysis of Congressional Twitter posts to identify dominant themes and frames, to categorize performances of empathy and calls to action, and to assess the state of the gun debate in the wake of Parkland. The study identifies Parkland as a critical moment for Congressional discourse on gun policy, one which brought about a new way of reacting to mass shootings. In response to a distinct backlash against public figures using the phrase “thoughts and prayers” as a performative act, there was a discursive turn towards calls for action from both parties. While the actions endorsed were starkly partisan on Congressional Twitter, the findings suggest that Parkland’s March For Our Lives activists were successful in challenging Congress to move beyond “thoughts and prayers.”
This trimmed down version is 190 words, with far less detail about the findings. It’s clearer, neater and tidier. Although cutting it down was difficult, it made me focus on what was really going on. It’s like on makeover shows, when they give someone a drastic haircut and it makes their eyes pop!